Foodie road trip in Devon
The cream teas might draw you in, but it’s the fruits of this county’s innovative farming and community projects that will make you long to stay, from fat organic strawberries to seashore-foraged dinners and zero-mile honey and cinnamon kefir
Looking for restaurants in Devon? Want to know where to eat in Totnes? Photographer and travel journalist Suzy Bennett takes us on a foodie road trip through Devon, stopping off at eco-friendly fruit growing projects, organic pubs and dairy farms selling goat’s milk kefir.
In a field beside lushly wooded hills in south Devon, Geetie Singh-Watson is sampling the first of the season’s strawberries. Postbox-red and as big as golf balls, they are exquisite. What makes them even more extraordinary is that they have been grown outside, rather than in a polytunnel, and organically, using crab shells as fertiliser and sheep’s wool for mulch.
Devon may be best known for its meat industry, but it is rapidly gaining a reputation for its progressive, eco-friendly fruit and vegetable growing projects. At one of them, Baddaford Farm, near Ashburton (which Geetie owns with husband Guy, founder of the nationwide organic vegetable box scheme Riverford), the team are experimenting with growing traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables robust enough to withstand the vagaries of the British weather.
“Growing produce in polytunnels is weakening many varieties and running them into the ground,” says Geetie, who was awarded with an MBE after opening the UK’s first organic gastropub, The Duke of Cambridge, in north London in 1998. “Anything that’s grown in natural, tough conditions will be stronger and more resilient to bugs and weather. Here, we are experimenting with strong varieties that are viable in the open air and grown for taste rather than shelf life.”
Come autumn 2019, produce from Baddaford Farm will be on the menu at Geetie’s new venture, The Bull Inn, a Grade-II organic pub with nine bedrooms, in nearby Totnes. The setting couldn’t be more fitting. Totnes is one of the UK’s greenest towns, with a high street made up of independent and eco-friendly businesses, including the UK’s first zero-waste shop, just around the corner from The Bull Inn.
Brought up on a self-sufficient commune in the shadow of the Malvern Hills, Geetie has felt deeply in touch with the land from an early age. Just as at The Duke of Cambridge, The Bull will be organic and run with minimum environmental impact. Water will be warmed by solar panels and heat recaptured from the kitchen, furniture will be reclaimed, organic linens will come from local firm Greenfibres and mattresses for the bedrooms will be handmade (using Dartmoor sheep’s wool) by Exeter-based Naturalmat. Interiors will largely be left in a natural, stripped-back state, with lime plaster and exposed stone walls. As for the food, chef James Dodd will be cooking veg-heavy meat and fish dishes. Think tender grilled monkfish with braised white beans, fennel and oregano, or roast local venison with bright salt-baked beets.
Naturally, everything will be responsibly sourced and seasonal, with a menu that changes according to the day’s produce. Meat will be wild or reared locally, and Geetie aims to eventually breed her own poultry. Even the bread boards will be sourced ethically, from LandWorks, a charity that rehabilitates former prisoners at nearby Dartington Hall Trust, in Totnes.
Geetie and Guy are not the only people to be experimenting in their wildlife-friendly oasis. One of their fields is about to be taken up by Fred Groom and Ronja Schlumberger who, in October 2018, set up Vital Seeds to fill a gap in the organic, British-grown seed market. The walls of their Dartmoor office are lined with shelves stacked neatly with paper packets of unusual vegetable, herb and flower varieties, including rare red Solix lettuce, Meruhen squash, Scarlet Emperor runner beans and Red Russian kale. “Everyone is talking about the local food movement but the produce is mostly grown using seed from thousands of miles away,” Fred tells me. “Seed is increasingly being grown by men in white coats, rather than gardeners themselves. We want to change this, and grow seeds that adapt naturally to the changing climate.”
Over at the Dartington Hall Trust, a 1,200-acre estate and charity near Totnes, I visit the Apricot Centre, a biodynamic, organic fruit and vegetable farm run by Marina O’Connell. Marina tells me how she used chicken manure to transform the farm’s once poor soil. “Chickens are mini nutrient bombs, with highly fertile poo,” she says, illustrating her point by showing me “before and after” samples of soil – the former a compacted lump that looks as if it’s come from the moon, the latter airy, loose soil teeming with microbial activity. She explains how treating it with a combination of green manure (decaying plants), biodynamic preparations (a concentrated form of cow manure) and 150 free-roaming chickens reconditioned it in just three years. Marina also explains how the woodland bordering her fields act as barracks for an army of natural pest controllers, including hover flies, lacewings, ladybirds and wasps, negating the need for chemical pesticides. The resulting produce is legendary at Totnes’ farmers’ market for being ultra flavoursome, and it’s no surprise to learn that Geetie will be serving it alongside her own produce at The Bull Inn.
Up the track, at Dartington Dairy, a handful of mischievous goats have chewed through their hedge fence and are sprawled across picnic tables, basking in the sun. I’m tempted by farmer Jon Perkin’s flyer inviting me to join a goat yoga class and “find my inner kid” but am drawn instead to the shop, where ice cream, and goat’s milk, yogurt and kefir fill the fridges. I sit at a table in the barn outside, drinking a chilled bottle of honey-and-cinnamon-flavoured goat’s milk kefir while two cheeky young escapees try to nibble my shoes. Never mind food miles, this is food millimetres.
More than 70 miles to the north, another innovative food venture is taking shape. Xochi and Michael Birch, founders of social network Bebo, are turning the sleepy village of Woolsery into a major food destination. Over the past three years, the couple, who live in San Francisco but have strong family ties to the village (Michael’s grandmother was born above the village shop), have bought up a number of ailing businesses and properties, with the aim of bringing back Woolsery’s “vitality and energy”. Under their care is the village pub, chippie, a farm, guest cottages and a Georgian manor, which they plan to launch in 2022 as a hotel and restaurant. The latter will offer an immersive dining experience, giving guests the chance to eat each course in a different part of the farm, including the potting shed, root cellar and possibly even an abattoir. The aim? “To take people out of the dining room and on to the farm where their food is being produced,” project manager Emily Harmon explains. If the new-look pub, which reopened in September last year, is anything to go by, the result will be a success. When the couple bought the Farmer’s Arms in 2014, it was so dilapidated that it had a tree growing out of a bath upstairs. It is now a serene and intimate space, with exposed stone walls, windsor chairs, church pews and splashes of taxidermy and modern art.
The restaurant, housed in an airy timber-framed extension, is furnished with rustic tables flanked by long tweed banquettes and a huge marble fireplace. Headed by Gidleigh Park’s former head chef, Ian Webber, dishes are built around ingredients foraged by staff from hedgerows and coastlines. The aim is that all food, including meat, will either be foraged or produced organically on the farm, with fruit, vegetables and herbs grown under a ‘no-till’ sustainable agroforestry system (it’s currently being planted with organic seeds from Vital Seeds, in consultation with Marina at the Apricot Centre). Until then, produce is sourced from local suppliers. Dinner is a riot of colours, shapes and flavours so layered and clever that I find myself grateful to be dining alone, without the distraction of conversation. My starter has no less than 21 carefully curated ingredients, centred around a buxom scallop topped by a gravity-defying fan of sea kelp, dulse, sea lettuce and bladder wrack foraged by staff on the shores of nearby villages Clovelly and Bucks Mills.
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A main course of hogget, served with a hedgerow harvest of ramson, nettle and cleavers, is tempting but I opt for turbot poached in Cornish Knightor vermouth, served on an oystery dulse seaweed mash, and buttery leeks charred over the pub’s fire. Dessert is an astringent sea buckthorn parfait hidden under a tent of crispy fruit-leather sheets, with a floral hibiscus and pink peppercorn sorbet on the side.
The following morning Emily tells me how Michael and Xochi are planning a programme of food workshops, a relaunch of the village’s beer festival and to bring back the farmer’s market. A north Devon food destination with style, substance and scruples? Roll on 2022.
Words and photographs by Suzy Bennett, August 2019
Follow Suzy on Instagram @suzybennett.photography
More places to eat and drink in South Devon
South Devon Chilli Farm
On a 10-acre farm outside Totnes 10,000 chilli plants a year are grown in the South Devon sunshine. Visit and you can bask in the tropical heat of the Show Tunnel, lined with stunning bursts of colour from 200 varieties of chilli plants in every shape and size, see seedlings being propagated in the nursery or buy some plants to take home and grow on your windowsill – choose from Padron peppers, ancho poblanos, habaneros and many more. End your visit at the on-site café with a savoury cream tea (fresh, fluffy scones, cream cheese and homemade chilli jam) or a chilli-laced drinking chocolate. The farm shop also sells chilli sauces, chilli chocolates and freshly-picked chillies.
Wander around the Sharpham Estate and you can take in stunning views - a bend of the River Dart to the east and miles of lush, rolling hills to the west. Join a tour of the estate’s winery and an informal tasting of its award-winning wines (we liked the elegant, floral Sharpham Estate 2014 made with Madeleine Angevine grapes, and refreshing and ripe Summer Red 2013 made from Rondo and Pinot Noir grapes). British cheese is also produced here, made mainly from unpasteurized Jersey milk. We loved the Sharpham Cremet – a ripe goat’s cheese enriched with Jersey cream to create a mousse like texture – and the Sharpham Rustic, a creamy and mild, but richly flavoured, semi-hard cheese. Sign up for the full Sharpham Experience tour and you’ll enjoy a great insight into English winemaking, as well a picturesque river walk and a boozy lunch.
In the most unlikely of places, tucked away on an industrial estate in Kingsbridge, Jane Baxter and Samantha Miller host lunches and suppers amid the pared-back surroundings of their kitchen (the pair, who met at the nearby Riverford Kitchen, also run a catering business, supplying the food for corporate and private clients across the county). Dinner or lunch at the Wild Artichoke HQ is not to be missed, however. Taking place at large wooden tables, they’re all about sharing Jane’s hearty, Southern Italian-influenced dishes – think crisp truffle arancini, deep-fried Brussels sprouts, cured salmon with beetroot, grilled leg of lamb with salsa verde, creamed parsnip, potato and fennel gratin, and spring greens with parmesan. Make sure you try a bit of everything, especially when it comes to desserts: panettone bread and butter pudding, perhaps, alongside rhubarb and strawberry crumble, and pavlova with pears and chocolate.
From the company’s base in an uber-cool barn conversion, Nkuku sells its range of ethical, handmade homewares online. What many customers don’t realize as they’re buying its beautiful ceramic cereal bowls or wooden serving platters is that Nkuku also has a shop and café at its Devon HQ. A calming, earthy, stripped-back space, it’s the perfect setting for artisan, wood-roasted coffee from the nearby Curator Café, homemade cakes and brownies and deli boards laid with locally sourced cheeses and cured meats. Its sunny, south-facing courtyard is a great spot to while away an afternoon. And watch this space for upcoming evening food events…
Manna from Devon
At this well-established, family-run cookery school in Kingswear, you can learn to make all manner of things in a wood-fired oven. If you’ve managed to get hold of one of these hefty items at home the school’s owners, David and Holly Jones, will be delighted to pass on their wood-firing expertise. From pizzas and crusty breads to more surprising dishes - scallops, roast vegetables and even desserts – they’re a great introduction to this type of cooking. Choose from classes at the couple’s Victorian home or, for a true kitchen garden experience, join them in the beautiful setting of Deer Park Country House Hotel, near Honiton, and then stay overnight in your own private tree house.
Glazebrook House Hotel
For a food experience unlike anything you’ve tried before, book in at the fabulously eccentric Glazebrook House Hotel for an immersive Alice in Wonderland experience. From your bed in the Mad Hatter room you can spy the rooms of a dolls house protruding from the wall, or go for the Tweedle Deez room and spread out in one of its twin (double) four-posters. Chef Anton Piotrowski ensures the theme translates through to the restaurant with an innovative tasting menu that makes the most of seasonal produce sourced within 50 miles. Places are set with five sets of cutlery and all sizes of wine glasses for the wine flight of German Rieslings, Californian reds and even Lebanese wines. A picnic basket of snacks kicks off the menu, followed by gurnard with buttermilk and tonka bean on punchy wild garlic risotto with crab bisque, and an exquisite roast fillet of beef carved theatrically on a trolley by your table before finishing up with spiced pineapple with coconut and lychee sorbet, coconut macaroon and squishy marsmallow.
In a clean and bright first-floor space, Ancona-born Matteo Lamaro creates seasonal Italian dishes in the Curator Kitchen, a modern osteria he launched last year. Amid decor that’s part rustic Italian and part pared-down Scandi (large windows, painted floorboards and menus handwritten on brown paper) Lamaro serves fortnightly-rotating menus that are heavy on produce from the Totnes area, as well as Matteo’s home in Le Marche, where he has built up a network of artisan producers - his ‘Italian Food Heroes’.
Typical dishes include slow-cooked lamb ragu with orange zest served on freshly-rolled fettucini; red mullet and agrodolce lentils jewelled with soaked raisins, toasted spelt and oven-roasted tomatoes; and warming Italian panettone bread and butter pudding with orange caramel sauce and vanilla gelato. The wine list is pretty special too: Matteo is the only business in the UK to serve Col di Corte wines from Le Marche, including refreshing Verdicchio Superiore and Verdicchio Clasico.
The Cary Arms must be the most tranquil place for a pint in Devon. Happily sat inside the curve of Babbacombe bay, right next to Oddicombe beach, the view from the inn stretches to Portland Bill in Dorset and takes in the pink-soil cliffs of the English Riviera and an old pier where both seals and locals like to fish. For breakfast, try grilled kippers or the Devon full English; for lunch it’s all about the succulent local white crab meat and lemon mayonnaise bloomer. Dinner centres around fish – pick one of the chef specials for the freshest catch, such as delicately poached John Dory with basil pesto and seasonal vegetables, or Lyme Bay lobster. The wine list is plentiful and each week the De Savary family (who own the inn) choose the house white and red. Read Charlotte Morgan's full review of The Cary Arms.
Every detail of this stable block conversion above Ness Cove in Shaldon – sedum roof sewn with wild flowers; solar thermal heating; lambs’ wool wall insulation – was chosen for its green credentials. The food at this modish, family-friendly hang-out (also home to the Two Beach microbrewery, try the elderflower-tinged ODE Ale, pint £3), is regionally-focused and versatile. Dishes change daily depending on the availability of, say, sand eels or smoked River Teign salmon, which is served on a homemade English muffin with Hollandaise and a poached egg. Local venison is big in autumn, used in, for instance, a root vegetable stew or to make a burger with pickled cabbage, chilli jam and aioli. Read Tony Naylor's full review of Cafe ODE.